The pandemic made for a lot of differences in this year’s US elections, including vastly expanded access to mail-in ballots and early voting. That upended the Election Day rituals many Americans had become used to—but it resulted in more people voting than ever before.
It also meant they voted more securely than ever.
Officials around the country spent the last four years working to make election systems more resilient, so that if one thing goes wrong, there is still a way to keep the democratic process moving forward. E-poll books have paper backups, for example, while ballots have paper trails, and voter registration databases have offline backups.
But by extending the election so that it covered a longer period—several weeks or even a full month—they ended up with a system that can roll with the punches in a new way.
“If you have everyone voting on Election Day, it makes it harder to deal with any issue that arises,” says David Levine, who has been an election official in Washington, DC, Virginia, and Idaho. “If voters get stuck in lines, if equipment has issues, voters have fewer options to remedy the situation. Access will continue to expand beyond the pandemic because voters like it, and election officials recognize that having more opportunities to vote makes election security easier.”
Stretching out voting so that officials have a week or even a month to deal with it means the severity of any problem—whether it’s a technical glitch or a malicious attack—is greatly reduced.
One example came in October, when registered Democrats in Florida started receiving intimidating emails warning them to “Vote Trump or else!”
The emails claimed to be from the American hate group Proud Boys, but American intelligence officials said, shortly after analyzing the evidence, that they were actually sent by Iranians attempting to interfere.
The messages could have sparked chaos, but they were a dud because they arrived in the middle of a long period of voting, rather than before it started. American authorities had more time than normal to address the problem, and many people had already cast their ballots.
“If that had happened the day before November 3, and if that was the only day for voting, the consequences could have been much more significant,” says Levine, who is now focused on election integrity as a fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan group designed to counter foreign interference.
The evidence shows that Americans like expanded voting once they have access to it. While the issue gets contentious on a national level, the record from states and local governments shows that if you give voters more options, they want to keep them. In the last two decades, blue and red states alike have tried out all-mail elections—and stuck with them.
Whether these changes persist is yet to be seen. But although the 2020 election process is almost over (the Electoral College casts its votes on December 14), the task of improving the next election begins almost immediately. Typically off-year elections, like the ones that the United States will hold in November 2021, are excellent testing grounds for new ideas. So within the next few months, the Biden administration and states around the country will start focusing on the future.
This is an excerpt from The Outcome, our weekly email on election integrity and security. Click here to get regular updates straight to your inbox.